The Horseshoe Tavern was celebrating a legendary 70 years in existence as being a premier destination for live music in Toronto. The little bar with a big reputation has been the hot spot on Queen West where emerging local acts could test their mettle, acts from out of province and country can try to establish a local fan base and for huge acts to play in an insanely intimate setting. The fact that the stage is only knee high puts the musical guests almost on the same level as the crowd, and the lack of space means that you are guaranteed to be within smelling distance of many sweaty people both on and off stage. The space started out as a country bar with acts such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings making early appearances before they started focusing on Canadian talent where Stompin’ Tom Connors and The Band were regulars. Despite changes in names and owners over the years it took until the 90’s for the club to truly become what it is today, where you could have caught (if you were lucky enough and able to fight the crowds) The Hip, The Rolling Stones, Melissa Ethridge and early shows from Arcade Fire and The National. To celebrate 70 years in existence, Indie 88 decided to throw a little birthday bash for the humble beer hall.
A Fellow Ship, the Toronto based group that features no less than eight musicians kicked things off with their blend of folk, funk and a healthy dose of ska influences. Early in their set they played a grooved up sex jam called Knock Knock, that was nigh impossible to stand still during. The two lead vocalists Joe Dent and Forest Van Winkle play off each other magically. The band, while still emerging was pleasantly surprised at the turnout of the show and Dent comment on how they had never played to such a rapturous crowd before as the venue was already packed to the gills. Dent mentioned in earnestly how different it is for him to be on stage for an event like this, as being such a big music fan he normally is the one in the crowd. The group played a new song that must have not made many live appearances yet because after utterly nailing it drummer Ryan Johnson made sure to give trumpet player Austin Jones props for the excellent performance. Even when the band tried to slow things down on Water Song, the crowd was still dancing along to the tempo. Toronto is notorious for having static crowds and with the powers they clearly possess so early in their careers it won’t be long until they are headlining their own gigs in bigger venues.
Trying to check the google machine to learn about the second act of the night was surprisingly difficult. The name got some “adult” results and what little there was to see about the band Girlfriend Material was brief at best. It turns out it was their first show, with their EP coming out only a week earlier. As I watched them play I was amazed at the sheer level of proficiency and talent that this band possessed. As I did some research to write this review I learned that Girlfriend Material is actually a supergroup consisting of members from Tokyo Police Club and Hollerado, two of the most popular Canadian indie bands today. The group seems born of Green Day’s Dookie and Blink-182’s Dude Ranch (minus the potty lyrics) with a touch of The Pixies Doolittle for good measure. The full blast power punk-pop was a treat to witness and if they were the headliners instead of a more folk oriented group, there would have been a giant mosh pit on the checkered floor of The Horseshoe. The lyrics were bratty and observational, the kick drum was thundering and the bass lines were fat and funky, all of which combined with a duo of lightening fast guitar playing for one hell of a show. Their set was so fast and furious, there were no times for proper goodbyes, front man Graham Wright drenched in sweat took off his guitar and said a simple “thank you” and gave the crowd a thumbs up before quickly walking off stage. You’ll probably be hearing their music on the radio in no time and I eagerly await their potential tour with Billy Talent, Sum 41 and Treble Charger.
Fast Romantics have had a whirlwind of a year as they released their latest album American Love and had the most success of their career thus far. The album featured two singles that had heavy radio airplay and got stellar reviews for the record not to mention they are performing some pretty big shows. The band came out in the dark as the music slowly started to build up. Lead singer Matthew Angus gazed over the crowd with steely eyes surveying a crowd he was about to ignite. The band jumped right into Everybody’s Trying to Steal Your Heart, the first track off of their new album. The whole band smiled while they played with Angus being especially excitable, as he literally bounced around the tiny stage. Even though Angus is from Calgary, the genesis of the band is almost all Toronto based. Angus declared the show to be a hometown event to pump the already primed crowd. The set consisted of songs almost entirely from the new album that came out back in April of this year. The title track American Love had the crowd singing along to the chorus, something that was encouraged as Angus held the microphone over the crowd to amplify their voices.
In order to properly honour The Horseshoe Tavern, Angus told a few stories about what the place meant to him. The crowd learned that The Shoe was the first venue where he played with the current lineup of Fast Romantics, which also was the home of the debut of most of the new songs that ended up on the record. The venue was also the place where Angus saw his first Toronto show as a fan, where he got to see the legendary folk/punk band The Weakerthans, highlighting what makes the venue so special. Personally I have seen my share of shows at The Horseshoe Tavern with some highlights being a secret show put on by Spoon during NXNE 2014, Dan Deacon having the craziest dance party ever and Sturgill Simpson tearing it up before becoming a Grammy nominee for Album of the Year.
For Radio Waves the female vocalists in the group, Kirty and Lisa Lorenz sung beautiful harmonies that sounded like a 50’s female doo wop group. The song seemed to aptly describe the music the band makes as it seems like every track is perfectly suited for radio waves with the impeccable lyrics and just poppy enough music to make it pleasing on everyone’s ears. The band played their biggest hit Julia midway through the set, and you could tell that not only is the song actually a hit, but that the band is destined for bigger things. A good portion of the crowd all took their phones out to record the song, something you see more often at arena shows by artists who have #1 hits. On How Long, Kirty got a chance to really shine as she sung the lead vocals showcasing her smoky sultry voice. The band’s dynamic is interesting as Angus is all bravado in the most genuine way, while Kirty plays things cool and coy allowing the audience to come to her making them nicely contrast one another. The band threw in a cover of Tom Petty’s Even The Losers, which if you didn’t know who originally performed it you could swear it was written by Fast Romantics as they made it all their own.
The band took a short encore break, and even though I have been to many sold out shows at The Horseshoe Tavern, there have been very few with such electricity in the air. The last song started slow, then I noticed a smirk starting to emerge on Angus’ face that spread to a wide grin just as the band kicked it into overdrive and banged out another infectious number that got the crowd dancing harder then they had all night. Angus had told the crowd quite emphatically that he wanted to meet everyone afterwards. While waiting for the giant lines to subside I saw all the band members spread out across the bar chatting it up with friends and fans alike with Angus making sure to shake everyone’s hands and ask for names when starting a conversation with the well wishers. I was in awe of the pure talent and energy the band had, and a show like this will be remembered as a special one. Chatting with Kirty, I learned the group planned on getting started on a follow up record as the writing process has already begun. After seeing what they are capable of, the days of small clubs are gone as Danforth Music Hall, The Phoenix, Echo Beach and others will be their new homes they play in this city. The don’t call it the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern for nothing.